Michael Medved, Opinion contributor Published 5:01 a.m. ET Dec. 1, 2020 | Updated 3:17 p.m. ET Dec. 1, 2020

Trump will not be leaving the White House graciously, and there are doubts he’ll go to Biden’s inauguration. But Pence could smooth the way.

When Joe Biden takes the oath of office as our 46th president, he might find himself upstaged at his own inauguration. It won’t be his running mate who steals the limelight as the first female ever installed in either of our top two executive offices. Nor would the outgoing chief executive, Donald Trump, play his customary role as the focus of media scrutiny and public controversy. In fact, many Washington insiders expect him to become the fourth president in history to decline to attend the swearing-in of his successor. 

If Trump does shun the national spectacle dramatizing the peaceful transfer of power, then Vice President Mike Pence could make a high-profile decision to reshape his own political future and place in history. By standing with wife Karen on the inauguration platform, surrounded by the Biden and Harris families, Pence could definitively distance himself from Trump’s self-destructive refusal to concede his loss amid angry claims of a “stolen”, “rigged” election.

Trump won’t go graciously

If those allegations continue, dramatized by demonstrations, street fights and ongoing lawsuits, Trump remains unlikely to offer the gracious congratulations that characterized defeated incumbents in the past. In 1992, the last president to lose a bid for reelection, George H.W. Bush, told his supporters on election night: “I just called Governor Clinton over in Little Rock and offered my congratulations. … And I want the country to know that our entire administration will work closely with his team to ensure the smooth transition of power. There is important work to be done, and America must always come first, so we will get behind this new president and wish him well.”

Vice President Mike Pence on Nov. 13, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Such a statement before the inauguration would amount to a tacit admission by Trump that he never really believed the claims of massive fraud he has promulgated so promiscuously since well before Election Day. It’s easier to imagine the MAGA Man heading out of town before the jubilant Democratic crowds begin jamming the capital city.

That’s what John Adams did in 1801, after losing a bitter, toxic race to his old friend Thomas Jefferson. The sixth president, Adams’ son John Quincy, followed the same course of action when he evacuated Washington ahead of raucous celebrations for the victorious Andrew Jackson in 1829. The last sitting president to avoid participation in inaugural ceremonies, Andrew Johnson, stayed in his White House office signing last-minute papers while the heroic Gen. Ulysses Grant took the oath of office. Johnson might have feared booing from hostile crowds in 1869, having recently — and barely — survived impeachment and trial by a hostile Congress. 

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Pence can contribute to a peaceful transfer

Unlike Johnson, Trump retains tens of millions of fiercely devoted followers, and it’s not unthinkable he might summon them to attend a “counter inauguration” somewhere in the Washington area far from Capitol Hill. He could revel in revisiting the “stolen election” themes, emphasize his continued defiance of the establishment “swamp” and, no doubt, boast of a bigger crowd than “Sleepy Joe” Biden — regardless of the actual audience size for either man.

In this context, Pence could contribute powerfully to a peaceful transition and the mending of a badly frayed social fabric. At least he should welcome Kamala Harris and husband Doug Emhoff to the vice president’s residence at the Naval Observatory, as the Bidens welcomed Mike and Karen Pence in 2016.

To turn up to honor Biden’s assumption of power would also provide a personal declaration of independence from Trump’s angry, ugly obsessions.

For four years, Pence defended the president at every turn, but as the Orange Overlord leaves office, he must become his own man at last. With Trump openly musing over his own potential candidacy for a triumphant 2024 return, and with other allies and family members available as more logical heirs to Trumpism, Pence would preserve, rather than damage, a potential run of his own by displaying dignity and class to conclude his vice presidency.

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Most significant, his participation in a cherished ritual of the republic would signal recognition that the presidential election and its winner both counted as legitimate. A platform appearance by the departing VP might be criticized as shallow symbolism, but at a time of poisonous polarization, healing gestures can only help.

Michael Medved, a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors, hosts a daily radio talk show and is author, most recently, of “God’s Hand On America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era.” Follow him on Twitter: @MedvedSHOW

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